The circular economy applied to global plastic packaging is based on finding fundamentally different ways to achieve greater value that is preferably derived from our existing structures and harnessing systemic solutions to recoup this value with predictable results. Sounds easy enough — right? Well, it can be. But in order to apply this principle to global packaging, we need to get honest with what's actually happening.
Let's talk about the end-of-life issue of plastics and what that really means. A common misconception is that plastics can be perpetually recycled. Unfortunately, they can't and eventually the “end-of-life” is actual disposal — it's waste, period. At some point, this is the reality for plastic material and we're producing 300 million tons of it every year. Recycling is terrific, but it is not an end-of-life solution. Some specific polymers and applications may have multiple life cycles, some may only have one, but eventually the end-of-life means finding ways to take this non-reusable and non-recyclable material and still create higher value.
After studying this topic for a number of years, I believe one of the most counter-productive aspects to sustainability efforts and the idea of achieving circularity, especially in regards to plastic waste, is the demonization of landfills. Almost a half a century ago our landfills were admittedly a complete mess and the indoctrination began to instill an abnormal disdain for this disposal method. However, because of advancements in technologies and regulatory requirements, today nearly 80 percent of all municipal solid waste is entering an anaerobic environment that controls and converts biogas into clean energy. This is a fact, and it's the single most common disposal method of plastic waste. Unfortunately, most of these facilities are still referred to as “landfills,” inciting panic and paralysis. Nevertheless, these places have become highly efficient energy-generating power plants and the most abundant pollutant could be feedstock that provides energy for all.
It's been said that only 10 percent of consumers are really passionate about being green and 20 percent don't care at all. However, 35 percent are green and they're concerned, but they want it to be easy. The remaining 35 percent are also green, but they're disheartened and want leadership. True progress will only take place when producers and manufacturers take the reins and take accountability for the end-of-life reality, using science and data, instead of basing sustainability initiatives on myths and emotions.
Our consumption will only grow with a bourgeoning middle class in the developing world. Along with this growth, we'll purportedly need to provide 50 percent more energy, 50 percent more food and 30 percent more water in the next couple decades. Which makes me extremely suspect of the sourcing of biopolymers, but that's a topic for another day. However, in order to optimize this system we must ensure packaging is designed to “cycle” at the highest level possible, when and where it's applicable to do so. Ignoring the fact that landfill gas-to-energy has become one of our greatest alternative energy resources is an oversight we can't afford.
Vice President of Business Development
Enso Plastics LLC